My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2023)

I am shamefacedly admitting I knew nothing about the inspiration for Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s new novel – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Priest based at the Vatican at the time of Rome’s takeover by the Nazis who was responsible for the saving of some 6,500 lives through the Escape Line, which ran from the neutral Vatican City, housing and hiding soldiers, escaped Prisoners Of War, Jews and others the Nazi regime took against.

This is a fictional account which leads up to a mission, known as a Rendimento, planned for Christmas Eve 1943.  O’Flaherty was supported by a group who met on the pretext of choral singing and some of these are interviewed in the early 1960s and their accounts of what happened runs alongside a third person narrative.  O’Connor writes beautifully with multi-sensory descriptions being layered to build a picture of events and the tale he tells here is involving and often thrilling.  He seems more at pains to ensure we know we are reading fiction than the average historical novelist.  I might be wrong here but from a quick glance at the true events online I think he has changed the identity of the main threat to the mission, a German officer who viewed O’Flaherty as his nemesis.  If this is so, this fictional creation allows the author greater freedom in portraying the evil within this man.

Monsignor O’Flaherty is the lifeblood of this novel but I think I might have appreciated further fleshing out of some of the supporting characters within the choir.  From their interviews I wasn’t always clear who was talking and this narrative structure removed them slightly from the action although I do acknowledge that anonymity at this time was a prerequisite for survival.

I was impressed by this strong novel but I must admit that it didn’t quite get me the way the author’s evocative recreation of a Victorian theatrical world inhabited by Bram Stoker in 2019’s “Shadowplay” did which made it into my Top 5 Books of that year.

My Father’s House will be published on 26th January by Harvill Secker.  Many thanks  to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

All The Broken Places – John Boyne (Doubleday 2022)

A new John Boyne title is always a reading highlight for me.  I’ve read 7 of his up to now, 4 of which have ended up in my end of year Top 10s. I was both thrilled and made nervous by his decision to write a sequel to his most famous and my 2nd favourite of his, (“The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is probably still my most loved book of the 21st Century so far), “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) which I read in 2018 when it was runner up in my Books Of The Year to “The Count Of Monte Cristo.”

It is such an impressively self-contained piece that it seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary book to have a sequel.  In his Author’s Note John Boyne says he’s been mulling the idea over for years and the isolation of lockdown felt like the right time.  The question for me was, did I want to revisit these characters in another setting?

This is the first-person narrative of Gretel, the sister to Bruno, main character in “Striped Pyjamas” and it follows a dual narrative, one which moves through time from the end of World War II and one taking place in modern day London.  Here, Gretel is a sprightly 91 year old living in a smart apartment in Winterville Court, overlooking Hyde Park, the other narrative explores how Gretel has reached this point in her life.

Unsurprisingly, the central theme in the novel is guilt. Gretel has got to 91 living daily with her family’s involvement in the hostilities in the place Bruno thought was called “Out-With”.  The immediate post-war years saw a need for re-invention in different locations until she settles in London. 

My dilemma here, and I think this will be the case for many readers, is Gretel.  She is realistically rather than sympathetically drawn but I couldn’t help rooting for her and I struggled whether this was the right response, and this was likely to be the author’s intention.  Obviously she has got to an old age thousands were deprived of and there are some extraordinary moments in her past which will stop you in your tracks and will fundamentally change the way you feel about this character in “Striped Pyjamas” and Boyne does extremely well to also convey her effectively as an elderly woman still struggling after many decades to come to terms with her past.

Supporting characters do not seem as well drawn as in other of this author’s novels (especially in the contemporary section) but we are seeing them from Gretel’s perspective and words and she is very wrapped up in herself, so perhaps this is appropriate.  As “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” builds to a big twist there are a couple of those along the way for those readers looking for a big reveal.

I did enjoy this and wanted to know what was going on but my ongoing niggle as to whether a sequel was necessary was unresolved and so I take that as meaning that this book is not as Essential as “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”.  All of the now 8 Boyne works I have read have had something in them to enrich my life but this  for me does not quite make it into my Top 5 of his novels.  It is thought-provoking and at times really gripping but remains slightly in the shadow of his 2006 masterpiece.

All The Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Queen Of Dirt Island – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2022)

Donal Ryan’s last novel “Strange Flowers” (2020) was voted Novel Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards.  Do not be surprised if he does it again with this which I think is even better.

I absolutely loved his debut “The Spinning Heart” (2012) a book voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  By the winter 2015 edition of NB magazine I was putting it forward as my choice for “Best Book Of The Twenty-First Century So Far”.

“Strange Flowers” took a while for me to get into.  I felt the narrative style chosen with its very matter of fact fable or fairy story feel initially held me at bay and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I realised the extent this canny author had immersed me into the book.  Here, in what is very much a companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (although it works fine as a stand-alone) I was with him right from the start.

It is set in the same location with some of the same characters in a more supporting role this time but moving on a generation as we meet four generations of a family from rural Tipperary.  Main character Saoirse is brought up by her mother with daily visits from her grandmother who supports her daughter-in-law widowed at the very beginnings of motherhood.  Nana and Mother are the lifeblood of this novel, squabbling yet totally supportive, both have been let down by families in their past but they are not going to do that to the current generation.  The last novel was dominated by the superb characterisation of Alexander, who I loved, here it is the relationship between the two strong women who pull the others through the ups and downs of life.

And what I really like about this book is that life just goes on, the community faces some quite shocking events and keeps going.  Towards the end two characters who were central in the last book give their perspective to Saoirse in a way in which she thinks they might break out into the old Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” but this viewpoint does permeate the lives here.  So much is subtle and underplayed and you don’t expect that from what is ostensibly a family saga. Nothing is laboured.  Most of the characters would not even understand the relevance of the title, relating to a piece of land held by Mother’s family which has little part to play for most of the novel, other than it informs her personality.  The narrative style gives a lightness of touch I wasn’t as aware of in the previous novel.

Characterisation is so rich, Donal Ryan has created a set of characters who are so well developed within a short space of time.  He brings a whole community to life.  In a way (although the characterisations and location are completely different) it felt to me just a tad reminiscent of what Armistead Maupin was trying to achieve in his “Tales Of The City” series, but I think Donal Ryan’s handling of this is stronger.  He carried this off brilliantly in the talking heads approach of “The Spinning Heart” and has achieved it here within a very different narrative style.  It is totally involving and very impressive writing.

The Queen Of Dirt Island is published by Transworld Digital as an ebook and Doubleday as a hardback on 18th August 2022  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel becomes the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtlety of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.